Loneliness is a universal human experience that most everyone feels at some point in their lives. However, chronic or prolonged loneliness can take a serious toll on both physical and mental health. As researchers learn more about loneliness through neuroscience and social psychology studies, they are finding its effects to be just as damaging to our well-being as other chronic stressors like poverty or abuse.

In this in-depth look at loneliness through a psychological lens, we’ll explore what causes feelings of loneliness, how communities can help alleviate it, and the relationship between loneliness and mental/physical health risks. By gaining a better understanding of loneliness and its impacts, we hope to reduce the stigma around it and encourage social connection strategies that benefit individuals and society.

What is Loneliness?

Put simply, loneliness is a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met (Perlman & Peplau, 1981). It’s a subjective emotional state rather than a demographic condition related to living alone. One can feel intensely lonely while surrounded by people or content while solitary.

MRI studies have shown that social disconnection activates the anterior cingulate cortex and insula regions, areas involved in processing physical pain (Cacioppo et al., 2006). This tells us loneliness satisfies an innate human need to belong through physical connections in the same way hunger aids nutrition. Evolutionarily, interacting socially increased chances of survival, so loneliness serves to motivate reconnecting behavior.

Loneliness in Community

Communities play a key role in mitigating loneliness according to sociological research. Different religious groups and neighborhoods tend to be more tight-knit, hosting regular bonding activities that curb isolation (Cornwell & Waite, 2009). Even social media interactions have been tied to less loneliness, highlighting technology’s potential for connection (Primack et al., 2017).

However, rates of loneliness have risen in recent decades as communities weaken and people relocate frequently for jobs (UCLA Loneliness Scale, 2018). Individualist values emphasizing independence over obligation to others may exacerbate loneliness by weakening support systems (Juntunen & Hyvönen, 2018). Finding purpose and meaning through interpersonal relationships fulfills an essential psychological need.

Health Impacts of Prolonged Loneliness

When loneliness becomes chronic rather than occasional, its costs to both mental and physical health grow substantially. Lonely individuals have higher risks for anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and cognitive decline like dementia (Wilson et al., 2007; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). They also tend towards unhealthy behaviors and lack self-care, increasing risks for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010; Luo et al., 2012).

One study found the mortality risk from loneliness rivals that of obesity or heavy smoking due to elevated stress hormone levels that accelerate aging (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Loneliness also heightens stress responses and impairs sleep, compounding health problems over time (Cacioppo et al., 2002; Jaremka et al., 2013). Addressing it as a public health concern could aid preventative care and healthcare costs significantly according to researchers.

Reducing Loneliness in Individuals

On an individual basis, remaining socially engaged appears key to avoiding or overcoming loneliness. Setting aside quality time for regular in-person interactions with family/friends and joining interest groups helps fulfill affiliation needs (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Volunteer work reconnects people to a greater purpose which nourishes well-being as well (Post, 2005).

Using technology for virtual visits or remote activities can supplement face-to-face contact during isolating periods (Bhullar et al., 2020). Self-compassion plays a role too—lonely people benefit from positive self-talk and accepting temporary feelings rather than avoidance which compounds distress (Nolan-Hoeksema, 2002). Overall, maintaining strong relationships requires continual effort but pays off exponentially for mental health.

Fostering Inclusive Communities

To reduce societal loneliness, communities must prioritize inclusiveness according to a psychological perspective. Intergenerational spaces encourage interaction between young/old which have reciprocal benefits (Findlay, 2003). Initiatives welcoming new residents and celebrating diversity foster belonging which buffers stress and mental illness (Steptoe et al., 2013; Haslam et al., 2020).

Even simpler actions like regularly checking on shut-in neighbors strengthens the social fabric. Volunteering brings compassion full circle. And community centers hosting diverse activities from sports to crafts cultivate bonds across differences (Dury, 2014; Doran et al., 2019). Overall, considering loneliness a public issue aids its alleviation through policies nurturing togetherness.


In summary, loneliness poses real risks to well-being though often overlooked. Its distress stems from evolutionary needs for affiliation. While technology offers connectivity, face-to-face interaction remains integral to psychological health. Communities that promote inclusion safeguard against isolation lifting the whole. With awareness and compassion supporting social ties, loneliness need not plague individuals or societies long-term.